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Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Aussie Bastard Who Could Fly – and the Grey Star Reporters Who Knew How to Cover His Crash

Guy Menzies phones home from Hokitika on the evening of January 7, 1931, while postmaster Ralph Cox listens in. Photo taken by David Stevenson.
Young journalists today, if denied the use of their iPhones and their laptops, wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to do it. But 85 years ago, in January 1931, reporters from the Greymouth Evening Star - armed with no more than their wits and their Remington portable typewriters - hurdled with impressive ease the massive challenges that confronted them. A rebellious young daredevil flyer called Guy Lambton Menzies had crashed-landed in a South Westland swamp at the end of a groundbreaking unscheduled flight from Sydney. It was one of the biggest international news story of the day, making a sizeable splash on The New York Times’ world page (under the headline “Youth Breaks Record on Tasman Sea Flight”). Even before The Gray Lady’s story was printed, those Grey Star reporters had got it on to the front page of such distant evening newspapers as the Corsicana Daily News in Texas and the Iola Register in Kansas - that very same day! (Well, in fairness, in the meantime it had crossed the international dateline, but still …) In startlingly quick time, US dailies such as the Morning News in Wilmington, Delaware (“Another Famous Southern Cross”) and the Terril Record in Iowa (“Inglorious Ending of a Glorious Flight”) printed Greymouth photographer Lawrence Andrew Inkster’s images of Menzies and his Avro 616 Sports Avian IVa – Charles Kingsford Smith castoff, the Southern Cross Junior – upside down beside Alf Wall’s cow paddocks at Herepo outside Harihari.
Photos at crash site by Lawrence Andrew Inkster
         Inkster’s photos, which clearly showed the registration letters G-ABCF underneath the Avian’s wings, had instantly given rise to some Kiwi wit – they stood for, one Harihari humorist promptly declared, “Gee – Aussie Bastards Can’t Fly!
The 21-year-old Menzies had hit the La Fontaine ground at 3.15pm on January 7, 1931.  By the time he had fallen headfirst into mud out of his cockpit, waded across swampland to find help, had afternoon tea with May Berry and was put in Bert Kelly’s cream truck,  Grey Star and Grey River Argus reporters were well on the way south to meet him. One had somehow latched on to the story almost as soon as it happened, and had already spoken to Menzies by telephone from Harihari postmaster George Rowley’s store. It was a trying interview – after his 11-hour 45-minute flight from Mascot, Menzies was still pretty much deaf from the constant roar of the Avro’s engines.
Menzies with Hokitika hosts and Greymouth reporters on the evening of January 7, 1931.
 Photo by David Stevenson.
The Grey Star and Argus reporters were there at Ross, 29 miles of then hazardous road north of Harihari and 40 miles from Greymouth, when Menzies arrived in Kelly’s truck. His story was disseminated so far and so rapidly that it had reached Sydney by 3pm Eastern Australian time (5pm in New Zealand) and a Sydney Morning Herald journalist was able to ring Menzies’ mother, Ida, in Drummoyne, to give her the good news of Guy’s “safe” arrival. In those days, New Zealand’s cooperative news agency, involving dailies both metropolitan and provincial feeding copy into a national grid, was called the United Press Association. As affiliates, the Grey Star and Grey River Argus filed stories of major news value to Wellington, from where those of international appeal were sent on to Australia and beyond by “electric telegraph”. In 1931, UPA was under the management of former Christchurch Star news editor Alexander Buchan Lane.
The impression one gains from Max Wearne’s 2005  The Life of Guy Menzies: The Forgotten Flyer is that Australian newspapers were as much on top of this story as those in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand journalists were supplied with some details about mystery man Menzies, but Australia’s eastern seaboard was two hours behind New Zealand, and yet New Zealand newspapers still “owned” this story the next morning. For ample evidence of this, one only has to compare The New Zealand Herald’s massive coverage (above) with the skimpy paragraphs in The Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper in which the most prominent Menzies “news” item was a half-page Atlantic Motor Oil advertisement lauding “this daring aviator”.
Now in fairness, Harihari is about as a remote a hamlet as there is in a sparsely populated and rugged country. In that part of the New Zealand, in that era, telephone communications were only possible through party lines, directed onward through the post office in the town of Hokitika. When on the evening of the Menzies landing, postmaster Ralph Cox put Menzies through to Sydney, to speak to his mother and to Frederick William Tonkin (1884-1956), the much-travelled editor of the Daily Guardian, it was the first time such calls had been made between Westland’s capital and Sydney (two firsts in one day!).
Menzies relaxes in the Cox home, the postmasters' residence.
Photo by David Stevenson.
Menzies' log book shows that he estimated he would land "about Greymouth".
In the circumstances, the achievement of the Grey Star and Grey River Argus reporters, and the Greymouth correspondent of the Christchurch Press, was truly remarkable. Thousands of words were sent in extraordinarily short time across the world, followed the next day by the prints from the crash scene taken by Inkster and a photographer who had somehow managed to find his way to South Westland from Dunedin, Alexander William Bathgate (right, 1877-1961) (remember, there was no Haast Pass back then, nor would there be one for another 30 years).
While Inkster was still on his way south to capture Menzies at the crashed Avro, two of the more famous Menzies images, one of him on the telephone and the other at dinner with reporters and his hosts in Hokitika, were taken by a young Hokitika photographer named David Stevenson Jr (1907-1949).
 Inkster’s photos were prominently used in the Auckland Star and Wellington Evening Post on the 10th and, with Stevenson’s and Bathgate’s, in the Auckland Weekly News on the 14th, no mean feat given the capricious picturegram method of transmitting images by wire back then. Inkster’s images also appeared in Australian newspapers from the 13th. For someone whose work in the La Fontaine swamp in 1931 is mostly uncredited today, Inkster’s legacy is that his photos of the upturned Avro are the ones by which the Menzies story is still most easily identified. However, one of his more telling images, illustrating just how boggy La Fontaine was back then (below, right), is no longer used, credited or otherwise. Stevenson and Bathgate have been given no lasting credit, either.
The talented Inkster, left, was born in Westport on April 2, 1897, the son of a Shetland Island migrant who died when Inkster was six months old. He was raised by his mother, who came from Araluen, outside Canberra. Inkster first worked on the railways but found his forte in photography and joined forces with James Ring in 1924. He took over Ring’s renowned agency when Ring retired in 1929. It was still called Inkster’s when Joe Quinn became owner after Inkster’s death on August 29, 1955. Quinn also photographed for the Grey Star.
For the Star and Argus reporters to have got hold of the story, to have made contact with Menzies, either by phone or in person, to have carried out their interviews, typed their long and detailed stories, and to have filed them from Hokitika on the night of the crashlanding, using party lines, in the time they had available to them ahead of deadlines, was quite astonishing. Don’t worry, I know what I’m talking about – I once had to file a story using a party line from a remote part of the West of Ireland, and it was a most exacting task - and that was in 1974! Remember, this flight in 1931 was unscheduled, made by an unknown pilot. And it ended a very long way from Menzies' intended destination outside Blenheim (or, as Australian authorities had been led to believe, Perth). So at first, at least, details were sketchy to say the least. What the Star and Argus men did took some doing.
Archibald Kibble
The Grey Star team was marshalled by the newspaper’s editor, Archibald Kibble. Kibble was born in Holborn in London on November 7, 1879, and first worked in New Zealand as a clerk in Napier in 1911. He started his career in journalism in Hobart in 1914 and enlisted for World War I when he returned to New Zealand in 1917 and settled in Christchurch. Kibble became editor of the Ashburton Guardian in 1919 and took over as editor of the Grey Star when John Robert Wallace died in April 1921. Kibble remained editor for 25 years. There was a break in 1939 when he went back to England, but he returned at the outbreak of World War II. After leaving the Grey Star in 1946, Kibble returned to Christchurch and was still in journalism at the age of 78. After two trips back to England in the 1950s, he eventually settled back there in 1959 and died on July 26, 1965, in Bournemouth.
"Our photographer", the "first man on the scene with a camera", was in fact Lawrence Inkster of Greymouth.
Sadly, the names of these intrepid Grey Star and Argus reporters who covered this historic event are unknown. The hundreds of newspapers around the world which published their stories only gave them the standard “Our Correspondent” byline, as if to establish they had someone on the scene.
Uncredited Inkster photo in an Australian newspaper.
"Gee – Aussie Bastards Can’t Fly!" can't be seen!
We do know, however, that one “ace” New Zealand journalist, James Ogden Hanlon, was back in harness in Christchurch, after stints with the Sydney Sun and as editor of The Fiji Times in the late 1920s. Born in Auckland on June 10, 1899, Jim Hanlon had worked for the Auckland Star, Wanganui Chronicle and the Grey River Argus before going to Australia and on to Suva. He spent most of the 1930s as a chief of staff and roving reporter based in Norfolk, England, before returning to Auckland. Hanlon died on June 21, 1986, aged 87, and is buried at Purewa Cemetery.
 Above, Menzies with young female admirers in Hokitika. Below, Menzies' plane is carted from Hokitika to Greymouth
 Below, in Greymouth.

1 comment:

Bill M said...

Amazing how back then a single engine crash made such news. Then records in aviation were still being set though. One of the sayings we had when I did a lot of flying is a good crash is one you can walk away from. Glad I never even had one of those.